This Is Our Youth
This Is Our YouthINTRODUCTION
In 1993, the MET in New York City produced Kenneth Lonergan's one-act play "Betrayal by Everyone" during their festival of short plays. Lonergan then expanded the play and renamed it This Is Our Youth. The new version opened off Broadway in 1998 to rave reviews that continued when the play moved the following year to the Douglas Fairbanks Theater on Broadway. The play was published by Overlook Press in 2000.
The entire play takes place in an Upper West Side apartment in New York City in 1982 and centers on two friends: twenty-two-year-old Dennis, whose father pays for his rent, and nineteen-year-old Warren, who has just stolen fifteen thousand dollars from his father. Both are college dropouts who have been caught up in the excesses of the "Me Generation" of the 1980s yet, at the same time, reject the elitist world of their parents. The plot is complicated by a young woman who, along with Dennis, introduces Warren to the complexities of human relationships, especially concerning issues of loyalty and betrayal. As Lonergan focuses on the efforts of Dennis and Warren to return the cash to Warren's father, he presents an acerbic look at this generation in its ironic struggle both to resist and to attain adulthood.
Kenneth Lonergan was born in New York City in 1963 to parents who were both psychiatrists. His father was also a retired doctor and medical researcher. Lonergan attended Walden School, a progressive private school in Manhattan, where he began writing in the ninth grade. His interest in playwriting was sparked when his drama teacher asked him to collaborate on a play. The characters in This Is Our Youth are loosely based on his Walden friends and himself. After graduation, Lonergan attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and took classes at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village, New York City. He eventually earned a degree from New York University's drama writing program. While he was attending New York University, he wrote his first play, The Rennings Children, which was chosen for the Young Playwright's Festival of 1982.
Lonergan supported himself after college by writing speeches for the Environmental Protection Agency and Weight Watchers, creating video presentations for Grace Chemicals, and writing comedy sketches for Fuji Films sales meetings. During his time as a speechwriter, he never abandoned his love of writing for the theater; he often participated in readings and workshops with the Naked Angels, an off-Broadway theater troupe.
The fact that Lonergan's parents were both psychiatrists seems to have influenced much of his writing, including The Rennings Children, a play about a family's struggle to avoid mental disintegration, and the screenplays for both Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002), films that explore the psychiatric problems of a member of the Italian mafia. Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth gained much attention at the 1993 festival of short plays at the MET in New York City. Waverly Gallery, another semi-autobiographical work, is based on the life of his grandmother. The play received critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2001, but it was not a commercial success. Another of Lonergan's works, Lobby Hero, made the top-ten list in The Best Plays of 2000–2001.
Lonergan also wrote the screenplay for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000) and wrote, directed, and costarred in You Can Count on Me, a film that won the Grand Jury Prize at its premiere at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and earned Lonergan the Waldo Salt Screen-writing Award. Lonergan has also worked with the director Martin Scorsese on writing for some of Scorcese's films. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his "on-the-set" rewrites for Scorsese's film Gangs of New York (2002).
This Is Our Youth takes place in Dennis Ziegler's one-room apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in New York City. It opens on a Saturday night in March, after midnight. His friend Warren appears at Dennis's door, lugging a large suitcase and a backpack. Dennis begins rolling a joint, after he discovers that Warren has brought some marijuana with him. Warren admits that his father has kicked him out because he smokes too much of it.
Warren pulls two hundred dollars out of his backpack and gives it to Dennis, in payment of a loan. He admits that he stole fifteen thousand dollars from his father, who, he guesses, got it from a shady business deal with gangsters. He explains that he wanted to make his father pay for kicking him out. Dennis tells Warren that he is stupid for stealing the money and is afraid that his father and his associates will come after Warren and find him at Dennis's apartment. He wants Warren to take the money somewhere else, but Warren insists that there is nowhere else he can go.
Dennis tells Warren that no one likes him, because he is always provoking people and he is an idiot. He then analyzes everything that is wrong with Warren's life—that his father continually beats him, that he owes Dennis money, that he is "an annoying loudmouthed little creep," and that now he is "some kind of fugitive from justice." Close to tears, Warren says that he does not know what to do or where to go. Warren talks Dennis into letting him stay until he figures out what to do about the money.
Warren asks whether Dennis has seen Jessica, a friend of Dennis's girlfriend, Valerie, but Dennis tells him that Jessica is out of his league. Warren suggests that they take some of the money, get a hotel room, and have a party with Jessica and Valerie. After he accidentally breaks Valerie's sculpture, Dennis explodes.
As a way to replace the missing money, the two think about selling some of the vintage toys that Warren is carrying around in the suitcase, but Dennis comes up with a plan to sell cocaine instead. The plan involves partying with Jessica and Valerie. Dennis insists that Warren will do fine with Jessica if he does not talk about his dead sister. When Jessica arrives, Dennis goes downstairs (offstage) to meet Valerie, and the two leave to get the drugs and some champagne.
After some awkward conversation, Warren and Jessica talk about their plans for the future and argue about environmental influences and personality development. They then have more amicable conversations about their families and Warren's toy collection, which Jessica admires. He tells her that he considers the 1914 Wrigley Field Opening Day baseball cap that his grandfather gave him his most valuable piece. After she inquires about his sister, he reluctantly tells her how she was murdered by her boyfriend. They smoke pot and begin to dance to the vintage albums Warren has. They begin to kiss, but Jessica soon breaks it off, asking Warren whether he really likes her. He insists that he does and invites her to share a room with him at the Plaza Hotel.
In the early afternoon of the next day, Warren arrives at Dennis's apartment. Dennis tells him that he got the cocaine and that Valerie stormed out after she saw her broken statue. When Dennis asks what happened with Jessica, Warren says that they had sex at the Plaza. Dennis says that the Plaza is a dump and that they should have gone to the Pierre instead. Warren is worried that Jessica was too quiet before she left in the morning.
When Warren says that he spent about a thousand dollars for the night, Dennis explodes, claiming that they will not be able to make up the money by selling the cocaine and that Warren's father will come after him. The two decide to sell Warren's toys to make up the difference, but Warren keeps the baseball cap. When the door buzzer rings, Dennis panics, thinking that it is Warren's father, but he calms down when he finds that it is Jessica. She comes up, and Dennis makes innuendos about her and Warren.
After Dennis leaves, Jessica tells Warren that she cannot go out to brunch with him because her mother is upset that she stayed out all night without calling. When Warren inquires whether he can see her later in the week, she declines and asks whether he told Dennis that they had slept together. After Warren admits that he did, she becomes angry, and the two get into an argument. Warren tries to explain that he really likes her and that what he told Dennis was very respectful. When he asks what he can do to make it up to her, she tells him that she would like him to give her his grandfather's baseball cap. He immediately hands it to her, insisting that he wants her to have it, but he cannot hide his distress.
They argue about the hat; Jessica tries to give it back to him, but he refuses. When she asks about seeing him later in the week, he replies, "I don't think we can. I'm all out of baseball hats." As she takes it off her head, he threatens to burn it if she tries to give it back again. Jessica leaves it on the table and departs.
Just after Warren pours out on a plate the cocaine that Dennis has bought, the phone rings, and he knocks over the plate. When Warren realizes that it is his father, he admits that he took the money. They discuss his sister and his own bad judgment and end the conversation with each telling the other, "I hate you."
Dennis returns, apparently devastated by the discovery that the person he bought the drugs from the previous night has died of an overdose. When he tells Warren how much he got for the toys, Warren says that Dennis was cheated. At first, Dennis explodes, but then he apologizes, explaining that he is upset by his friend's death. As he starts talking about it, he determines that he will get off drugs, because he has become "high on fear." He considers how he can try to make something of himself, insisting that he could be an excellent chef, film director, or sports star.
Warren and Dennis then argue about the money and the spilled cocaine, and Dennis again tells Warren that he is a loser. Fed up, Warren complains that Dennis is not on his side, which causes Dennis to sob. Warren tries to calm him down by telling him to drop the subject. They then discuss the overdose, and Warren goes into a long monologue about how alone his father is after his sister's death. Dennis, obviously not listening, cuts in with the comment "I can't believe you don't think I'm on your side." To placate him, Warren insists that he knows Dennis is and then decides to go home. The play ends with Dennis smoking pot and Warren just sitting there.
Nineteen-year-old Jessica Goldman is a "cheerful but very nervous girl" who displays "a watchful defensiveness that sweeps away anything that might threaten to dislodge her, including her own chances at happiness and the opportunity of gaining a wider perspective on the world." She uses this defensiveness to help her project her own image of herself as a hip, intelligent, independent young woman who cannot be taken advantage of, yet her actions suggest that she is not as self-assured as she appears.
On first meeting Warren, Jessica tries to convince him that she is in control, when she insists that she will not let others play matchmaker for her. But her defensiveness immediately becomes apparent when she does not recognize that Warren is teasing her about his sexual intentions. She ironically reveals her own fragile sense of self when she tells Warren, "Like right now you're all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you're gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be." Jessica's vision of their futures as successful doctors or fashion designers suggests that she will follow the same path as their parents, proving that she does not recognize the meaninglessness and moral vacuity of their lives. She insists that this inevitable transition "just basically invalidates whoever you are right now." "So," she says, "it's like, what is the point?" This view also provides her with easy excuses for her present behavior, such as trying to persuade Warren to give her his most prized possession, a vintage baseball cap given to him by his grandfather.
Jessica reveals her shallowness in her obvious attraction to Dennis and his famous father and beautiful mother and in her excitement when Warren suggests that they get a penthouse room at the Plaza Hotel. The most blatant example of this quality emerges after she becomes worried about telling Dennis's girlfriend, Valerie, that she and Warren did not sleep together, after Warren told Dennis that they had. Even when Warren insists that he talked about her with a great deal of respect, she still needs him to validate her worth by asking him to give up his most important possession. She clearly shows no concern for how valuable the baseball cap is to Warren and how difficult it would be for him to give it away. Her only concern is proving her own merit, through Warren's offer of a treasured possession.
Warren is "a strange barking-dog of a kid" who finds himself in a great deal of trouble at the beginning of the play. After he steals his father's money, he turns to the only person he can; unfortunately, that is Dennis, who continually makes him feel like a loser. Although that description fits Warren in many respects, he has more thoughtfulness and "a dogged self-possession" that gives him more authenticity than his friends exhibit.
Unlike his friends, Warren understands that he is wasting his time in New York. He reveals his desire to move on when he talks about the pleasure of being out west in the mountains, in contrast to what he considers the trash heap of the city. He notes that he is not getting any intellectual stimulation and that all he is doing is getting high, which he can do anywhere.
Warren is also more able to express his vulnerability and his sense of loss, especially concerning the death of his sister. Although he is reluctant to talk about her, he admits that he is dealing with her death by keeping pictures of her in his room. He later tells his father that he thinks about her "all the time" and sees her in his imagination. Warren's compassionate nature emerges when he recognizes how much his father has also suffered. Even though his father has physically and mentally abused him, Warren shows sympathy for the fact that he is "totally by himself." He also exhibits compassion for Dennis, even though he recognizes how self-involved his friend is. When Dennis practically begs Warren to reassure him that he feels that Dennis is on his side, Warren agrees.
We never meet Valerie, Dennis's girlfriend, but Dennis speaks to her on the phone. Her function in the play is to reinforce Dennis's character flaws, specifically, his inability to control his anger and his self-centeredness. He screams at her when she voices anger at the fact that Warren has broken the sculpture she made for Dennis, never acknowledging to her the time and effort that she put into it. She also helps generate conflict for Jessica, who has to admit to Warren that she lied to Valerie about her night with him.
Dennis is "a very quick, dynamic, fanatical, and bullying kind of person; amazingly good-natured and magnetic, but insanely competitive and almost always successfully so." He had been "a dark cult god of high school" and still appears to have a great deal of influence over his circle of friends, whom he frequently verbally abuses. He takes great pride in this authority, insisting to Warren, "I'm like providing you with precious memories of your youth" and "I'm like the basis of half your personality." Dennis has learned that when he breaks down his friends' egos, they become grateful to him for agreeing to allow them to be in the company of what they consider to be a superior person.
Dennis has no compassion for anyone, including Warren, who appears on his doorstep with nowhere else to turn after he steals his father's money. Dennis shows him no mercy, continually criticizing and belittling him, goading him to tears at one point. He tries to take advantage of Warren's predicament by planning a drug deal to replace the lost money but figuring in a large cut for himself.
Others besides Warren suffer from Dennis's abuse, always doled out in an effort to maintain a complete sense of control over them. He berates his drug supplier for being overweight and greedy when the supplier dares to increase the selling price of some cocaine Dennis wants to buy, and he screams obscenities at Valerie when she expresses anger over Warren's breaking the sculpture that she had made for Dennis. In an effort to get back in Valerie's good graces, he blames his behavior on his mother, who, he claims, taught him to lash out as viciously as he can when he feels that he is being attacked.
At one point in the play, Dennis expresses a sense of vulnerability, but it takes a cowardly form. After he learns that his drug supplier has overdosed, he shows no compassion for his friend, concerned only with his own welfare. Realizing that if he does not change his current lifestyle, he could meet a similar fate, he admits to Warren, "I'm like, high on fear." He assumes that whatever choice he makes would bring him great success and considers that he could "go to cooking school in Florence or like go into show business." His overly inflated ego prompts him to declare, "I could so totally be a completely great chef it's like ridiculous." When he considers a career directing films, he insists, "I'd be a genius at it."
At the end of the play, however, Dennis reveals that his inflated ego is just a sham. When Warren questions whether Dennis is really a true friend to him, Dennis cannot deal with his friend's doubts about his character and breaks down in tears. Only after Warren reaffirms his friend's worth can Dennis calm down and recreate the illusion of confidence.
Coming of Age
All three main characters are on the brink of adulthood but are having difficulties with the transition. They have been living in a state of stasis, supported by their wealthy parents, who demand only that their children leave them alone. None of them has been forced to examine his or her empty life or to determine the future. Their days are spent thinking only about how they can fulfill their immediate desires: drugs, alcohol, and sex. Only Warren shows any development toward maturation, as he begins to realize the meaninglessness at the heart of their existence.
When Jessica determines that she wants Warren's baseball cap, his most prized possession, Warren recognizes her self-centeredness and her lack of respect for what is important to him. He rejects her offer of getting together later in the week, because he no longer wants to spend time with someone who cannot acknowledge the needs of others. He becomes impatient with Dennis at the end of the play for these same qualities, when he tells his friend that he does not believe that Dennis is on his side. Jessica's and Dennis's lack of sensitivity ironically encourages the sensitivity in Warren, who begins to think about what his father must have suffered after his sister died.
Each of the main characters must find a clear sense of identity in order to make the transition into adulthood. The two who appear to have accomplished this are Dennis and Jessica, yet during the course of the play, they reveal the illusory nature of their images of self. While Warren has not established a firm sense of his own self by the end of the play, he has been able to see the true nature of those around him, which suggests that he will then eventually be able to gain a clearer vision of himself.
Dennis and Jessica exhibit a confidence that is easily shaken when tested. Dennis continually promotes himself as a role model for all those who know him. As he tells Warren, "I'm providing you schmucks with such a crucial service" (as their drug supplier) as well as supplying "precious memories of your youth." He claims that he is "like the basis of half your personality." Dennis notes that his friends all imitate him and so should thank God they met him. Still, when Warren, who has grown tired of Dennis's constant criticism of him and his lack of support, declares that he cannot tell whether Dennis is on his side, Dennis crumbles and begins to sob. He cannot face the fact that he may not be the heroic figure he thought he was, since he has based his entire identity on this assumption.
We do not gain as clear a picture of Jessica as we do of Dennis, since she appears in only two scenes. However, Lonergan's acute ear for dialogue effectively presents a penetrating snapshot of Jessica's own struggles with her identity. Initially, she seems self-confident; she is not as arrogant as Dennis but is just as self-assured in her opinions, of which she has many. She immediately declares that she does not want Warren to assume that she will agree to any matchmaking scheme that he and Dennis may have planned. She insists that she alone makes any decisions about whom she will date.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Lonergan's dialogue in the play has been praised for its realism. Write your own dialogue of a conversation between you and a friend that reveals an important quality of your friendship.
- Read J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye and compare the depiction of a teenager in 1950s America with the depiction of young people in the early 1980s in This Is Our Youth. Are the struggles involved in the coming-of-age process the same or different in these works? Write an essay comparing and contrasting the two works.
- Imagine what might have happened to Warren after the end of the play. Would he have given his father back the money and reconciled with him? Would he have continued his friendship with Dennis? Write a character analysis of Warren ten years after the play ends. Use details from the play to back up your views.
- Interview four people who have experienced death in their families. Take notes, focusing on the effect of death on the family members. Report your findings to the class and lead a discussion, asking the class to compare your findings with the effects of Warren's sister's death on him and his father.
Jessica also has strong opinions about the maturation process, insisting that all of them will undergo radical personality changes, which will "basically invalidate whoever you are right now." Yet this becomes an ironic statement of her own tentative identity, since, as the stage directions suggest, Jessica's sense of herself is continually undercut by "a watchful defensiveness that sweeps away anything that might threaten to dislodge her." She is obviously shaken when she discovers that Warren has been discussing with Dennis his night with her, becoming increasingly agitated to the point that she declares that she does not care what others think of her because she can make more new friends if she has to. Her insecurities lead her to ask for Warren's most prized possession, the hat his grandfather gave him, as a way to try to reestablish her self-worth; she assumes that she must have value if he would give her something so precious to him.
Warren has not built up a false persona, as have the other two characters. He sees himself more realistically, even though that means he must recognize the more negative aspects of his personality. This insight into his own identity provides him with the capacity to discover the illusory concepts of self that his friends have constructed. Lonergan suggests that Warren's ability to recognize this reality will help him establish a truer sense of himself in the future.
The plot advances through dialogue rather than action, which occurs offstage. The dialogue reinforces the sense of the characters' self-absorption, especially in the case of Dennis, who pays little attention to what the others are saying. This occurs most notably at the end of the play, when Warren has just delivered a heartfelt monologue about his father's reaction to his sister's death. Dennis's response to Warren's question about his father being "totally by himself" is "I guess," followed quickly by his attempt to shift the focus back to himself and his fear that Warren thinks ill of him.
The sparse setting becomes an important symbol in the play, which takes place entirely in Dennis's studio apartment, an appropriately confined space for the limited lives of the two main characters, Dennis and Warren. Only three characters appear in the play; three others are spoken to by Dennis and Warren on the phone, but Lonergan does not include their words, which reflects and underscores the self-centeredness of the main characters.
The dominant symbol in the play, however, is Warren's suitcase full of toys, which he calls "the proceeds from my unhappy childhood." They are a symbol of a lonely youth spent gathering "authentic" artifacts that gave him pleasure. One item in his suitcase, however, provides a happy memory, because it reflects a strong familial link: the Wrigley Field Opening Day baseball cap that his grandfather gave him. This item is the most precious to him, and it becomes an important catalyst for change when Jessica asks him for it.
In the 1980s, the government's political and economic agenda, with its championing of American capitalism, triggered a promotion of self-interest. The decade of the 1980s was ushered in with Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration in 1981 and was heavily influenced by Reagan's economic philosophy. "Reaganomics," as this philosophy was termed, proposed that the encouragement of the free-market system, which depends on the individual pursuit of wealth, would strengthen the economy. This vision included the theory of trickle-down economics: as businesses were freed from governmental regulation, their profits would eventually trickle down to the American public through the creation of jobs and strengthening of wages. Americans would then be able to spend more money, which would further bolster the economy.
Republicans argued that the welfare programs implemented in the 1960s had turned Americans into government dependents and that only the reality of poverty would inspire lower-class Americans to adopt an independent spirit of enterprise. This championing of the free-market system focused the country's attention on the amassing of wealth and material possessions, fostering a dramatic escalation in consumerism and a new zeitgeist for the age. Reagan's own inauguration cost eleven million dollars. Soon after entering the White House, the first lady, Nancy Reagan, continued the spending spree with expensive renovations at the White House, which included a new set of china that cost more than two hundred thousand dollars. Initially, this lavish spending was criticized, but eventually, the entire country became caught up in the attraction of wealth.
In the 1987 film Wall Street, the New York financier Gordon Gekko insists that "greed is good," which became the mantra of the 1980s for many American consumers as well as for investors on Wall Street. During this decade, American goods were more plentiful than ever, and Americans began to feel that they had the right to acquire them. This age of self-interest was promoted by the media through periodicals like Money magazine, which taught Americans how to dramatically increase their earnings and glorified entrepreneurs like Steven Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, and the real-estate tycoon Donald Trump. One of the most popular television shows of the time was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which brought viewers into the lavish homes of the superrich.
Shopping became Americans' favorite pastime during the 1980s. Apart from going to malls, consumers could also satisfy their shopping urges by accessing the mall from home. With the advent of the shopping television network QVC and the steady stream of catalogues and telemarketing pitches from a wide range of mail-order companies, such as Sears and L. L. Bean, consumers could purchase a variety of goods over the phone.
Voices of Dissent
Some voices critical to the promotion of America's consumer appetites were emerging in the early 1980s and became stronger at the end of the decade, when evidence of insider trading on Wall Street resulted in prison terms for greedy speculators. Economists noted that the unemployment rate reached its highest point in more than forty years in 1982, which helped raise the number of Americans living in poverty to the highest level in seventeen years. Sociologists warned of the effects of homelessness and drug abuse and insisted that more governmental programs were needed.
Writers like Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987) and Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City, 1984) chronicled the empty lives of Wall Street's elite. Musicians made political statements by organizing concerts and recording music to help a variety of social and political problems. In 1984, Bob Geldof, for example, put together a band of Irish and British musicians, called Band Aid, to cut a single to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Geldof went on to organize multivenue charity concerts, called Live Aid, in London and Philadelphia for the same cause. Elizabeth Taylor took up fundraising activities for the awareness and treatment of AIDS.
The critical response to This Is Our Youth has been overwhelmingly positive. Many critics, like Robert Brustein, in his review for the New Republic, have applauded the play's realism and praised Lonergan as a "penetrating cultural historian." Brustein characterizes the play as a "sharp [x-ray] of social abscess and moral atrophy," noting its "tough-minded, almost clinical examination of the aimlessness, the vacuity, and the emotional deadness" of its privileged main characters. He concludes, "Lonergan's capacity to evoke these qualities without moralizing about them is the mark of a significant writer."
Stefan Kanfer, in a review for the New Leader, echoes Brustein's assessment of Lonergan's talent when he writes, "A lesser playwright might have been content to let [the initial conflict] occupy the evening." But while Dennis and Warren are trying to decide what to do about the money, "Lonergan introduces a third party and takes the play to another level." Kanfer insists that "the star of the evening is the playwright, who summons up a world much larger than the three actors onstage" and who has "a gift for character analysis, dramatic tension and the kind of wry, ironic dialogue that jump-starts the Off-Broadway season."
In his review for Variety, Matt Wolf claims that Lonergan is "a playwright blessed with an ear so finely attuned to slacker-speak that every 'um' and 'man' seemed to encapsulate an era." Wolf comments that this "master dramatist" "clearly and cleanly sets forth" the play's "jumble of emotions." He notes "how seamlessly orchestrated the play feels, its landscape encompassing burgeoning romance and long-abiding friendship alongside sudden and brutal ache." In a closing note, he praises the "numerous perceptions so piercingly captured by a play that could not seem more adult."
Richard Ouzounian, in his review for Variety, has a darker vision of the play, concluding that it is "a deeply disturbing look at the moral emptiness of a generation." However, in her review for American Theatre, Pamela Renner calls it an "acerbic comedy" and says that "the transitional self of adolescence is hard to pin down in writing, but Youth draws urgency and propulsive strength from its presence."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she traces the development of one of the central characters in the play as he takes the first steps toward adulthood.
At the beginning of Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth, twenty-one-year-old Dennis Ziegler tells his nineteen-year-old friend Warren Straub, who has just stolen fifteen thousand dollars from his father, "Nobody can stand to have you around because you're such an annoying loudmouthed little creep, and now you're like some kind of fugitive from justice? What is gonna happen to you, man?"
Although Dennis's assessment of his friend is characteristically harsh, Warren often proves himself to be quite annoying, a trait intensified by his decision to hole up in Dennis's apartment until he can figure out what to do about his father's money. He also wonders what will happen to him when his father finds out that his money is missing. Warren, along with Dennis, never thinks much beyond the next few days, which are often viewed through a haze of marijuana smoke. By the end of the play, however, Warren will emerge from his self-induced fog, as he begins to make a thoughtful assessment of the characters of those around him. This new awareness of his world and his place in it will mark the beginning of his transition into adulthood.
Both Warren and Dennis are the spoiled, rootless offspring of Upper West Side elitist parents who have written them off as essentially worthless members of society. Robert Brustein, in his review for the New Republic, writes that Lonergan is a "penetrating cultural historian" who has realistically depicted "the aimlessness, the vacuity, and the emotional deadness" of these youths.
In her review for American Theatre, Pamela Renner notes an important difference, however, between the two main characters and their parents. Renner notes that Warren and Dennis "both know that they are running out of excuses." And, she says, "they don't mistake their own disaffection for moral authenticity; it's just a way of gaining some breathing room until they figure out what they want." They are determined not to become just like their parents. They reject the false philanthropy of Dennis's mother, who, Warren insists, is "a bleeding-heart dominatrix with like a hairdo," and the greed of Warren's father, who is involved in business deals with the mob.
At the beginning of the play, Warren has no idea what he wants, other than the money that he has just stolen from his father. He steals it initially to make his father "pay" for kicking him out of the house and for emotionally and physically abusing him for so many years. Once he has it, he is not sure what to do with it, other than to buy a few bottles of champagne and some drugs and, he hopes, lure girls to an expensive suite at the Plaza Hotel for a night of partying.
Warren knows that without the money, he is not likely to get a date. He illustrates his penchant for disaster not only when he steals money that his father most likely got from gangsters but also when he destroys Dennis's girlfriend's sculpture. Dennis underlines this trait when he asks, "How emblematic of your personality is it that you walk into a room for ten minutes and break the exact item calculated to wreak the maximum possible amount of havoc?" He determines Warren to be "a total troublemaker."
Warren has a long list of other faults, as Dennis continually points out. Dennis notes that Warren is not very bright, which he has proved by stealing his father's money, and has little to say unless he is asked a direct question. Warren's inability to establish his own identity has prompted him to adopt Dennis's habits and style, which others, including Dennis, recognize as blatant hero worship. These traits have prevented him from attracting girls, a fact to which Dennis often calls attention, until Warren has fifteen thousand in cash ready to spend on a night of partying.
Warren soon discovers, however, that the money is not a guarantee of success. When Jessica appears to have lost interest in him the morning after their stay at the Plaza, Dennis inquires, "What kind of talent for misery do you have, man?" Warren replies, "I don't know. I guess I'm pretty advanced." Warning him that his destructive lifestyle may eventually ruin him as it does other less advantaged youths, his father has insisted that "the only difference between you and them is my money…. It's like a big … safety net, but you can't stretch it too far, man, because your sister fell right through it."
For all of his faults, however, Warren has—as Lonergan's stage directions suggest—"large tracts of thoughtfulness in his personality." Still, at this point in his life, they "are not doing him much good." He exhibits "beneath his natural eccentricity a dogged self-possession" that suggests a certain core of inner strength. Brustein comments, "Warren seems at first to be slightly brain-dead—restless, easily bored, always asking 'What's up?'—but the closer we get to him, the more sharply focused he becomes."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Lonergan's 1982 play The Rennings Children focuses on the psychological problems and tensions within a family.
- Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1949) looks at the troubled relationship between a salesman and his two sons.
- J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, celebrated as an acute expression of the cynical adolescent zeitgeist, chronicles a teenaged boy's maturation into adulthood.
- Jonathan Larson's play Rent (1996) presents eight different stories of young adults in New York City in the 1990s as they struggle to cope with poverty, drugs, and AIDS.
Renner writes, "It's a testament to Lonergan's slyness and restraint as a writer that one comes to care powerfully about his hapless Warren—who has a way of reminding you instinctively how much the empty spaces inside your heart ached at his age." We note his painful self-consciousness as he tries to impress Jessica enough to encourage her to give him a chance. We glimpse his heartache in his attachment to his suitcase full of toys, "the proceeds from my unhappy childhood" as he calls them. These toys are "authentic" artifacts to Warren of moments when he could escape the loneliness of a childhood that offered him little comfort. We recognize the importance of the baseball cap given to him by a grandfather who apparently provided him with moments of attention and affection that he did not often experience. Finally, we observe the painful loss of his murdered sister, a loss with which he has not been able to come to terms. Never, though, does he succumb to self-pity.
Warren's thoughtfulness emerges in his interaction with Jessica. In an effort to prove to her that he cares about helping others, he insists, "I'm a total Democrat." His actions support his contention, revealing that he has a kinder heart than does Dennis, who repeatedly screams obscenities at his girlfriend when she expresses anger about her smashed sculpture. Warren is truly concerned about Jessica's self-consciousness when she discovers that he has discussed with Dennis their night together at the Plaza, and he does everything he can to put her at ease.
Jessica, however, does not prove worthy of his concern, as she illustrates when she asks for his grandfather's baseball cap as payment for his telling Dennis about their night together. This event forces Warren to stop worrying about how he appears to Jessica and to pay attention to her true character. He tests her shallowness when he hands over the cap that she knows means so much to him. When she accepts it, noting his distress, she fails the test. Warren subsequently rejects her suggestion that they see each other later that week with the appropriate amount of irony, declaring, "I don't think we can. I'm all out of baseball hats." He stands his moral ground when she tries to return it, threatening, "You try to give me that hat back one more time, I swear to God I'll … burn it."
The incident with Jessica appears to have lessened Warren's self-consciousness and increased his awareness of others, which becomes evident when he speaks on the phone with his father. After admitting that he stole the money, he engages in a conversation with his father about his sister, admitting, "I think about her all the time." He says that he sees her "in my imagination." That conversations ends on an ugly note when he declares to his father, "Do whatever you want…. I hate you too." But Warren soon displays a true sense of compassion for his father. He explains to Dennis, "For the last nine years he's been trying to literally pound his life back into shape. But it's not really going too well, because he's totally by himself…. You know?"
By the end of the play, his compassion extends even to Dennis, who has taken every opportunity to criticize and belittle him during the past twenty-four hours. Recognizing Dennis's overwhelming need to envision himself as a role model to his friends, Warren calms him with false assurance, "All right, all right. You're on my side." The stage directions in this final scene note that Warren looks at Dennis "as if from a very great distance." Warren, in fact, has distanced himself, by the end of the play, from Dennis, who is still caught up in the same destructive self-absorption that Warren displayed when he first arrived at the apartment. Unlike Dennis, however, Warren has been able, through his capacity for introspection and insight into the character of others, to take his first steps toward maturation and a clearer sense of selfhood.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on This Is Our Youth, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following review excerpt, Weber identifies Lonergan as an exception to the dearth of talent in current American theater, and praises the characters and dialogue in This Is Our Youth.
"Our American theater sucks," declared Michael Cunningham in an interview with Tony Kushner at the height of Angels in America's popularity. Kushner had to agree that there probably was, in percentage terms, more bad drama produced in our culture than bad prose fiction, bad poetry, or even bad film. And playwright Suzan-Lori Parks makes the same point in her essay "Elements of Style": in no other genre these days, she laments, is the writing so awful.
Why should this be? Kushner offered the plausible explanation that money lures the talented away to other fields; only the chronically unemployable continue to plug away in theater. But Parks faults the slim intentions of the artists: the entire institutional apparatus of theater encourages works intended not to delight, fascinate, or awe the audience but rather to elicit a safe political reaction—"to discuss some issue," as Parks puts it. The buzz from a topical play can catapult the work, the playwright, the production, even the theater company involved, out of obscurity. There is every professional reason, then, to write bad drama of this particular issue-oriented sort.
Rebecca Gilman, a successful Chicago playwright, is riding a national wave of buzz generated by two recent works—Spinning into Butter and Boy Gets Girl (both published by Faber and Faber in 2000)—that each discuss an approved contemporary issue: liberal racism in the first case, violence against women in the second. By way of contrast, Kenneth Lonergan took a different route from obscurity, and I believe it spared him the necessity of writing bad plays. Lonergan worked with various theater companies in New York—Second Stage, the New Group, Naked Angels—but finally rose to prominence by following the money trail to film. His screenplay credits include the Hollywood comedy Analyze This and the independent feature You Can Count on Me, which he also directed, and which deservedly won him wider praise than any single stage production could.
Like Gilman, Lonergan has two plays currently published in trade paperback editions. Both works display the acumen and modesty of a truly gifted artist. The Waverly Gallery (Grove, 2000) chronicles the final undignified months in the life of Gladys Green, who—hard of hearing and losing her memory—just likes to yammer. "Everyone needs someone to talk to," she explains, "otherwise you'd just go nutty. I love to talk to people." A one-time lawyer, but now the naive proprietress of a money-losing art gallery in Greenwich Village, Gladys is provided with the gratuitous resume of a political radical who found herself in Germany just as the Nazis were consolidating power. But there is an aura of the playwright's autobiography clinging to Gladys and her family that may account for stock elements of her personal history.
A basically endearing woman, Gladys alarms those with responsibility for her wellbeing when she invites an unknown artist to sleep in the backroom of her gallery. She compounds that error, in the eyes of her daughter Ellen and grandson Daniel, by imposing her hospitable inclinations on them and also, for good measure, misplacing Ellen's Vermont cabin in a neighboring state.
ELLEN: She's getting worse.
DANIEL: OH, she's definitely getting worse, Mom.
A play about a character with a frustratingly disordered mind, who is in a frustrating and combative relationship with her family, could have been itself a frustrating experience. But The Waverly Gallery is not frustrating—it's an unusually pleasurable juggling act of overlapping, misdirected dialogue. The grandson, Daniel, addresses the audience at regular intervals. That works to good effect, in part because we need some order imposed on the narrative, but also because the author's language is precise and deft. This is the case in his stage directions and character descriptions as well. Don, the possibly talentless artist, is described as "a careful, hardworking and detail-fixated person who devotes a lot of his mental energy to very slowly and carefully arriving at the wrong conclusion." As much an author surrogate as grandson Daniel, Don feels compelled to reproduce on canvas the image of a macrame decoration his mother once made, to preserve for posterity the domestic details of his family history.
With its gestures toward autobiography, its painfully humorous representations of dementia, and Daniel's apt if obvious conclusion—"it must be worth a lot to be alive"—The Waverly Gallery reminded me of Christopher Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo, as well as Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a stark, horrific play dismissed as soft by those with faulty memories. Like those works, The Waverly Gallery confronts honestly the unpleasant aspects of its subject matter. Gladys, with her fumbled insulin injections and incessant word salad, ends up completely alienating her grandson, who lives in the same building and wishes to preserve memories of an unfaded, robust Gladys. "She rang my doorbell so much I stopped answering it all the time," Daniel confesses. "Instead I'd just go to the door and look through the peephole to make sure she was okay, and then I'd watch this weird little convex image of her turn around in the hallway and go back into her apartment." For her part, Daniel's mother, Ellen, wishes her own eighty-five-year-old mother peacefully dead. "[B]ut Dr. Wagner says there's nothing wrong with her physically," she tells Daniel. "She could go on like this for another ten years."
It is the strongest praise I can give the playwright that these acts of disloyalty, hurtful and selfish as they are, can be read as tragic signs of both hpelessness and, ultimately, love.
Like The Waverly Gallery, Lonergan's previous play, This Is Our Youth (Overlook Press, 2000), features characters trying to evoke a less corrupted, more energetic past. But, aged nineteen to twenty-one, they are only just embarking on the young adulthood they are trying to reclaim. Their current misadventures are self-conscious attempts to manufacture fond memories before they ineluctably mature into the roles currently held by their impeccably responsible, upper-middle-class parents.
The characters themselves are completely aware of their impending metamorphoses. Warren, the younger of two male characters, is told by his mentor and abusive friend Dennis, "I'm like a one-man youth culture for you pathetic assholes. You're gonna remember your youth as like a gray stoned haze punctuated by a series of beatings from your [f―]in' dad, and like, my jokes. God damn!" Jessica, whom Warren has designs on, offers an equally clear appraisal: "[R]ight now you're all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you're gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be."
The story is this: Warren has stolen $15,000 from his estranged father who, though not a criminal himself, is in business with criminals. Dennis hatches a plot to use the stolen money to finance a quick drug-selling scheme, return the stolen cash before the theft is detected, and walk away with a neat profit. (Even as they stall at becoming their parents, it is clear that they already are their parents.) As the plot unfolds, Lonergan includes a few half hearted nods to nihilism:
DENNIS: What is gonna happen to you, man?
WARREN: What is gonna happen to anybody? Who cares?
But the more prominent authorial tone is caution: characters play with fire, hoping not to get burned. Still, some do. Dennis's dealer friend, Stuey, dies of a drug overdose, and we are told that Warren's older sister was murdered years before at about this same age, as she passed through her own rebellious stage.
Set in 1982, This Is Our Youth owes a lot to Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis's novel from that era. Both feature a set of young, privileged characters whose self-inflicted injuries are only as severe as they themselves permit. Family wealth acts as a safety net but, alas, some characters choose to stretch the weave too far and slip through.
Lonergan's play also pays homage to American Buffalo, David Mamet's own three-character drama involving petty theft, the pawning of useless goods, and other vague dealings in a half-assed criminal underworld. And like American Buffalo, Lonergan's play concludes with a consideration of male friendship, which trumps family as the major concern of characters caught in this Peter Pan world of extended adolescence.
The play's theme gets punctuated perhaps a bit too hard when Warren, to cover his debts when the drug deal falls apart, is forced to sell his collection of mint-condition toys; Dennis's panicked conversion to sobriety after Stuey's death also seems to me too easy (I thought the author might have been setting up a joke—that Dennis resolves to "totally stop" with drugs every month or so); and the ghost of Warren's sister, meant to provide depth and poignancy to her brother's antics a la The Catcher in the Rye, is a bit too convenient. But the play's most basic elements are sturdy. And regardless of how pleased David Mamet claims to be with the structure of American Buffalo, it is actually the characters and his famous dialogue that form the strength of that play. The same is true here, whether it is Warren explaining to Jessica that he's never been into the cigarette scene himself ("But I hear great things about it") or Dennis putting Warren in his place: "Listen. You're a [f―]in' idiot. You never have any money. Nobody can stand to have you around. And you can't get laid. I mean, man, you cannot get laid. You never get laid."
Dennis is, in fact, a rare creation: a powerful, confident, amoral personality who doesn't seem too precious or too much adored by the playwright for his naughtiness. Lonergan gives Dennis significant blind spots that undercut his slacker bravado and slyly reflect on the playwright's own hubristic forays away from theater. "I should totally direct movies, man, I'd be a genius at it," Dennis brags. "Like if you take the average person with the average sensibility or sense of humor or the way they look at the world and what thoughts they have or what they think, and you compare it to the way I look at [sh―t] and the [sh―t] I come up with to say, or just the slant I put on [sh―t], there's just like no comparison at all. I could totally make movies, man, I would be like one of the greatest movie makers of all time."
As it turns out, You Can Count on Me established Lonergan as one of the most intelligent movie makers of recent years. And his two published plays suggest he is one of the few prominent contemporary playwrights worthy of significant notice. Though I can't say Lonergan really belongs in the theater, I would be delighted if he should choose to remain there. Still, if he can continue to produce films of a quality equal to his plays, and for a much larger audience, more power to him….
Source: Myles Weber, "Two Times Two: Some Notes on Our Contemporary Theater," in New England Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 179-86.
In the following review, Brustein calls Lonergan "a significant writer" and praises his "tough-minded, almost clinical" approach to his subject matter.
Two Sharp x-rays of social abscess and moral atrophy are currently playing in New York theaters. Closer (The Music Box) follows the purposeless sexual adventures of four London professionals. This Is Our Youth (Douglas Fairbanks Theater) focuses on the directionless lives of three young middle-class New Yorkers. Both demonstrate that playwrights can sometimes be among our most penetrating cultural historians.
The American play, written by the gifted Kenneth Lonergan, has a misleading title. Rather than being a cautionary sociological study of way-ward teenagers, This Is Our Youth is a tough-minded, almost clinical examination of the aimlessness, the vacuity, and the emotional deadness of a trio of privileged kids in their twenties. Set in 1982, at the beginning of the Reagan era, the play takes place in the West Side studio apartment of Dennis Ziegler (Mark Rosenthal), who is discovered lying in an unmade bed, surrounded by newspapers and magazines strewn carelessly around the floor. His dazed eyes are fixed upon an Abbott and Costello movie.
The apartment is a gift from his parents, out of gratitude for the fact that he has no desire to live with them. Dennis has festooned the place with recruitment posters and basketball trivia. Into this squalid den comes another figure estranged from his parents, Warren Straub (Mark Ruffalo), a zonked-out airhead wearing a parka and backpack. Following a fight with his father, Warren has fled the house with $15,000 of his dad's ill-gotten gains. These two characters, both of them wholly concerned with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, resemble the kind of affectless druggies usually played in the movies by Robert Downey Jr. Indeed, the action of the play revolves around a burgeoning cocaine deal that begins to acquire some of the intensity of the quest for the Holy Grail.
Warren seems at first to be slightly brain-dead—restless, easily bored, always asking "What's up?"—but the closer we get to him, the more sharply focused he becomes. He clearly has "an advanced talent for misery." His sister has been murdered in California for no apparent reason. His father has no use for him. And he is always breaking things or knocking them over—most calamitously for him, the hefty stash of coke that he has managed to obtain from a pusher with his father's money. His other major passions are for "retro" objects such as toasters manufactured in the 1960s and a Wrigley Field Opening Day baseball cap, though he seems to have a little feeling for a young woman named Jessica Goldman (Missy Yager), who has come to the apartment to share his bag of blow. After an awkward bit of foreplay, he books a room in the Plaza Hotel ("I happen to be extremely liquid at the moment"), where the two manage a perfunctory kind of sexual consummation.
As for Dennis, his rich mother is a big-city social worker, "a bleeding-heart dominatrix" devoted to installing swimming pools for the poor and lording her liberal sentiments over the rich husband who supports her. His offstage girlfriend Valerie is a sculptress, one of whose pieces—two lesbians making out—is carelessly smashed by the hapless Warren, thus leading to a major fight between her and Dennis. The two young men move in and out of their various sexual relationships with the same bored indifference they bring to their sense of the future. Dennis contemplates maybe going to cooking school in Venice, or maybe "I'll totally direct movies (get the best actors in the world and let them improvise)." Warren will probably return to his parents with what is left of the stolen money.
These are young people with no belief in themselves, and even less faith in their hypocritical parents or their disillusioned peers. For them, Reagan's America is populated with people once passionately eager to change the face of civilization, who eventually said, "You know what? Maybe I'll just be a lawyer." What gives these creatures some life is their personal style, perfectly captured by the director, Mark Brokaw, and by the three actors, particularly Mark Ruffalo, his brows knitted, his shoulders hunched, a carpenter ant trying to disappear into the woodwork. Although the play sometimes reproduces the drug-dazed atmosphere of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, it also reminded me of Ivanov. The male characters have the same flabby characteristics, the same elegiac sense of loss as Chekhov's superfluous man. Kenneth Lonergan's capacity to evoke these qualities without moralizing about them is the mark of a significant writer.
Patrick Marber is an even more exciting young talent. His Closer is the most interesting new English play I have seen since Pinter's Betrayal, a work it somewhat resembles. Indeed, as an anatomy of adultery, Closer may be even more impressive. It is certainly a more compassionate piece of theater—Pinter with heart, however bitter at the root. As both a writer and a director, and with the aid of a fine, functional design by Vicki Mortimer and a score by Paddy Cunneen that sounds like modern Bach, Marber has composed a piece of music himself, a classical string quartet in which the various players keep exchanging their parts and their instruments.
Put another way, Closer is a contemporary version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where the four lovers, though less predatory than those of Choderlos de Laclos, are equally obsessed with erotic conquest and immediate gratification. Throughout the play, Alice, a young striptease artiste, Dan, a would-be novelist reduced to writing obituaries, Larry, a dermatologist, and Anna, a photographer, keep moving in and out of each other's lives with the regularity of commuter trains picking up passengers at a station. These characters change partners as if they were the only four people in the world, satisfying their compulsive sexual needs with very little restraint, though with occasional pangs of conscience.
At times, this process becomes extremely manipulative. A justly celebrated scene in the play shows Dan online, pretending to be a woman, exchanging hot sex talk with Larry in an Internet chat room (their hilarious typed messages are projected onto a screen). Pretending to be Anna, Dan entices Larry into a rendezvous with her at the Aquarium, a meeting that eventually leads to their marriage. Sex-obsessed, these characters are also, most of them, obsessed with the truth. Larry informs Anna that he visited a whore in New York. "Why did you tell me?" she asks. "Because I love you," he replies. Anna, in turn, informs Larry that she's leaving him for Dan. It's not enough for Larry to learn she's betrayed him. He has to know all the details. "Is he a good [f―]?… Better than me?" ("Gentler," she replies.) Later, it is not enough for Dan to hear Anna admit that she went to bed with her ex-husband. He also has to know the details. "Did you enjoy it?" "Did you come?" "Did you fake it?" "Do you fake it with me?" Closer is extremely explicit about the rituals of sexual transactions, and extremely provocative in the way it demonstrates how for some people the act of cuckoldry can itself be a form of erotic pleasure.
If the absolute value among these people is honesty, their prime mover is not love but lust. The characters try to trick out their infidelities with romantic inventions, but these are easily exposed. "Stupid expression. 'I fell in love'," muses Alice, when Dan says he's leaving her for Anna. "As if you had no choice…. You didn't fall in love. You gave in to temptation." Toward the end, she sadly concludes, "They spend a lifetime [f―]ing and they never learn how to make love." Closer explores the vanishing line between conscience and temptation, treating adultery like some unmanageable habit, similar to smoking. Smoking, in fact, is the play's parallel metaphor. Those able to kick the habit are the ones most likely to be faithful. But don't count on it.
The major victim of these amoral sexual exchanges is Alice, the only one who has managed to give up smoking. Returning to her old profession after having been abandoned by Dan, she is visited by Larry, who stuffs her stockings with money in the hope of getting her to sleep with him. But although she is willing to show him every orifice of her body, she will not, at first, let him use her for his purposes. Significantly, she is the only character who is not passionate about veracity. ("Lying," she says, "is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off.") Finding her again, Dan demands that she tell him the truth about her relations with Larry, "because I'm addicted to it, because without it we are animals." She doesn't want to lie, but she can't tell the truth. Forced to admit that she had relations with Larry, she sacrifices what is left of her identity ("I'm no one"), confesses to Dan that she no longer loves him, and spits in his face.
It is because she is unable to live with truth that Alice commits suicide. At the end, it is revealed that she has been living the most spectacular lie of all, having taken her name and her biography off a memorial tablet belonging to someone else. The three survivors gather around her fake memorial at the end permeated by an enormous sense of remorse.
Memorial blocks constitute the backdrop of the set—a design that gradually accumulates all the scenic pieces used in the play, as if these four lives were a detritus of props and furniture. Marber's writing is reinforced by his stagecraft, his remarkable sense of space and time, and especially his impeccable cast: Natasha Richardson's cool and reserved Anna; Rupert Graves's anguished, driven Dan; Anna Friel's plucky if vulnerable Alice; and Ciaran Hinds's authoritative, somewhat barky Larry.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the theater was usually much more explicit about sex than the movies, a medium forced to ban four-letter words and to limit lovemaking to a chaste kiss before a fade-out. Following Bertolucci's breakthrough in Last Tango in Paris, the movies became so sexually explicit they made the theater look priggish by contrast. One of the virtues of Closer is the way it prods the stage into joining the sexual revolution. The play tells us more about the tragic consequences of this revolution than almost any other work I know.
Source: Robert Brustein, "Two Moral X-rays," in New Republic, June 28, 1999, pp. 36-38.
In the following review, Kanfer remarks on the accurate and realistic portrayal of setting, characters, and plot in This Is Our Youth.
Remittance men are dubious characters whose families pay them to live elsewhere. In the 1880s they could be found in the backwaters of Southeast Asia or the trading posts of Africa. There, the checks arrived by packet boat. A hundred years later they tended to set down roots on the West Side of Manhattan. There, the money came by plastic—credit cards, underwritten by Daddy.
The Second Stage production of Kenneth Lonergan's discerning tragicomedy. This Is Our Youth, examines the life of one such figure, and another in the making. The 20-year-old Dennis Ziegler (Mark Rosenthal) would be an ideal model for the "Before" in a Just Say No commercial. This bipolar windbag not only takes drugs, he pushes them—as well as himself, ceaselessly booming about his gifts for persuasion and leadership. In fact, only one person is naive enough to fall under his sway: Warren Straub (Mark Ruffalo), 18, a hunched, gangling shlemozzle whose father has just exiled him for substance abuse. What Straub Sr. does not know is that his son, on the way out the door, purloined $15,000 in cash. Now that Warren has committed the crime, he has second thoughts. Could he hole up in Dennis' apartment while he ponders his next move?
Dennis is in no mood for him. As he sees it, his place is too small and his life too big. Besides, what if Warren's father finds out about the theft? The lingerie manufacturer is a Mafioso. Who knows what he'll do when he misses the money? "My father is not a criminal," Warren protests. "He just does business with criminals." But Dennis is not mollified. Between refusals he keeps dialing numbers and yelling into the phone, attempting to bring off another deal or raging at an obviously bewildered girlfriend. With such a crowded schedule how can he possibly accommodate Warren? Still, he does need a sounding board for his egomania …
Negotiations between pusher and acolyte occupy most of Act I, with close attention paid to their backgrounds. The former schoolmates met at a West Side progressive academy where, according to Dennis, "they think it's going to cripple you for life if you learn how to spell." Dennis' father is a celebrated artist, embittered by his losing battle with cancer. His mother is a "bleeding heart dominatrix"—her son's definition of a social service administrator. Warren's father also suffers from an incurable malady: He remains traumatized by the murder several years ago of his 19-year-old daughter, Warren's sister. In the aftermath his ex-wife fled to California, where she and her new boyfriend do "volunteer work for some sort of grape-picking civil liberties organization." Clearly, both young men are grieving in one way or another, beseeching their parents for attention that will always be lavished on others.
Lonergan has given his characters little indulgence, but plenty to do and much to talk about. Warren, for example, has brought with him a valise full of old toys ("the proceeds from my unhappy childhood"). Some are worth serious money. Should he sell, or hang on to them in case his father closes in and reclaims the 15 grand? As for Dennis, how long will it take the narcs to catch up with this middleman between the Colombian cartel and students who want a line of coke? A lesser playwright might have been content to let these questions occupy the evening. But Dennis is never allowed to be still; he sets up an elaborate scam, planning to use the stolen loot to buy and sell some cocaine. If the deal comes off, Warren can return all of his father's money, and Dennis can pocket a handsome profit. While all this is transpiring, Lonergan introduces a third party and takes the play to another level.
Unlike her acquaintances, Jessica Goldman (Missy Yager) hopes to make something of herself. An occasional user, she has dropped by to palaver and maybe buy a little something for the weekend. She swiftly develops a thing for Warren, but he is so inept that she practically has to draw a blueprint for his next moves. Still, the ungainly youth is not without his own kind of wit. When they begin to dance, stepping all over each other's feet, he mutters, "If only society would give us a chance" in a perfect parody of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
Jessica's political views are emblematic of the '80s West Side. Ronald Reagan has recently been elected President, and therefore, "I definitely feel evil has, like, triumphed in our time." Suddenly assuming the role of Cassandra, she informs Warren, "Right now you're a rich little pot-smoking burnout, but 10 years from now you'll be a plastic surgeon." This is a depressing thought, "because it just basically invalidates whoever you are right now." Never mind that whoever he is right now is rudderless and emotionally immature. After all, he can always make her laugh. As he courts Jessica, for example, Warren notes, "Chivalry isn't dead. It just smells funny."
The young woman's aim in life is to graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Until then, Jessica wouldn't mind a little romance in her life, and when Warren flashes his bankroll she agrees to follow him to the destination of his choice: the Plaza Hotel for a night of carousal. The next morning Dennis expresses shock: They should have gone to the Carlyle, the Plaza is tacky. And he returns to the phone, detailing the schemes that cannot lead anywhere but down.
If Dennis' detritus-filled apartment is anything like my old one on the West Side, it has an oversized bathtub with three faucets labeled "Hot," "Cold" and "Waste." These are the prevalent themes of the evening, with an accent on the third indicator. Anomie is not the liveliest of subjects, and these are not the most likable of people. Yet the cast makes them compelling, credible and in a strange way, sympathetic. When the curtain descends, the trio of actors gives the impression that Dennis, Warren and Jessica are very much alive, slackers taking one step forward and two steps back until something—maturity, jail, whatever—comes along to deal them a new hand.
At the McGinn-Cazale Theater, Allen Moyer's set is accurate down to the smudges around the doorknob and the framed pictures of the Honeymooners over the sink; and Michael Krass' costumes cannily evoke the period of thrift shop chic. Under Mark Brokaw's strong direction, Rosenthal provides a heady mix of swagger and distress; Ruffalo fully inhabits his role of Holden Caulfield redivivus, the wisecracks never quite covering the catch in his throat; and Yager hilariously conveys the kind of sexual insecurity that did not end with the '80s.
But the star of the evening is the playwright, who summons up a world much larger than the three actors onstage. Lonergan has stated, unsurprisingly, that there is a great deal of autobiography in the play—first: presented in a short run back in 1996—and that as a student at the late progressive Walden School he and his friends were very much like the credit-card mutineers of This Is Our Youth. He has gone so far as to suggest that there is a bit of himself in Warren. If so, then Jessica's prediction has turned out to be incorrect. The teenaged loser didn't become a surgeon after all. He became a playwright with a gift for character analysis, dramatic tension and the kind of wry, ironic dialogue that jump-starts the Off-Broadway season.
Source: Stefan Kanfer, "Trio and Quintet," in New Leader, Vol. 81, No. 13, November 30, 1998, pp. 22-23.
Brustein, Robert, Review of This Is Our Youth, in the New Republic, June 28, 1999, pp. 36-38.
Kanfer, Stefan, "Trio and Quintet," in the New Leader, Vol. 81, No. 13, November 30, 1998, pp. 22-23.
Lonergan, Kenneth, This Is Our Youth, Overlook Press, 2000, pp. 5, 6, 14, 17, 31, 49, 57, 65, 73, 79, 111, 112, 117, 118, 119, 120, 127, 128.
Ouzounian, Richard, Review of This Is Our Youth, in Variety, October 6, 2003, p. 95.
Renner, Pamela, "Rites of Passage," in American Theatre, January 1999, pp. 54-56.
Wolf, Matt, Review of This Is Our Youth, in Variety, April 1-7, 2002, p. 40.
Camardella, Michele L., America in the 1980s, Facts on File, 2005.
Camardella explores the cultural history of America in the 1980s.
Frosch, Mary, ed., Coming of Age in America: A Multicultural Anthology, New Press, 1995.
The essays in this collection offer different multicultural views of the maturation process.
Kushner, Rachel, "Kenneth Lonergan," BOMB, Vol. 76, Summer 2001, pp. 40-45.
Kushner discusses Lonergan's writing process and the main themes in his plays and screenplays.
Schaller, Michael, Right Turn: America in the 1980s, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Schaller focuses on politics in the 1980s and America's reversion to the conservatism of the 1950s.